Empowerment Evaluation as a Social Wwork Strategy

Article excerpt

Incorporation of research and program evaluation in social work practice is a recurring issue in social work literature. Program evaluators and researchers continue to search for ways to engage program stakeholders in the process of designing, implementing, and maintaining evaluation activities that have both scientific merit and practical use (Loneck & Way, 1997; Staudt, 1997). Administrators, practitioners, and consumers constitute a primary group of stakeholders in health care settings, and their knowledge of and investment in program evaluation can determine the nature and usefulness of evaluative efforts within health and social work programs. Teaching program stakeholders how to generate valid, reliable, and meaningful evaluation findings and how to incorporate ongoing evaluation activities in practice settings are major thrusts of empowerment evaluation (Fetterman, 1994a). This article reviews current notions about empowerment evaluation and presents a case study of its application in developing a pilot evaluation plan for an HIV-prevention program. The case study provides an opportunity to examine the practice, policy, and research issues encountered in the development of an evaluation plan, using empowerment evaluation strategies, in a community health setting. The benefits and risks inherent in an empowerment approach to the evaluative research process are addressed.


Empowerment is a central theme in social work practice and policy (Lee, 1994), particularly in programs that primarily serve "women, people of color, and other oppressed groups" (Gutierrez, GlenMaye, & DeLois, 1995, p. 249). In practice settings, one of the goals of empowerment is "an increase in the actual power of the client or community so that action can be taken to change and prevent the problems clients are facing" (Gutierrez et al., 1995, p. 250). In the policy arena an empowerment approach strives to "take policy practice and advocacy to the state and local levels so that providers, consumers, and volunteer leaders can actively influence and shape local services, build stronger community collaboration, focus on family outcomes, and develop community governance and ownership of programs and initiatives" (Weil, 1996, p. 494).

Empowerment evaluation is a natural extension of the social work empowerment perspective and can be considered within the genre of collaborative and participatory program evaluation models common to social work program evaluation. Stakeholder ownership in the evaluation process and product as well as the use of participatory group techniques to encourage program involvement are integral aspects of empowerment evaluation. However, empowerment evaluation, similar to other social work empowerment strategies, is particularly applicable to programs that serve oppressed peoples (Mertens, 1995; Whitmore, 1990) or in programs that attempt to further social justice (Chen, 1994). Empowerment evaluation fosters in these agencies the capability of using research findings to improve their service delivery systems and to shape their own programmatic destinies (Fetterman, 1994a). Thus, the intent to transfer research evaluation knowledge from the researcher-expert to program stakeholders for the explicit and ongoing use and benefit of the programs serving disenfranchised populations is a major distinction between empowerment evaluation and other collaborative or participatory models.

Proponents of empowerment evaluation emphasize the multidimensional, multimethodological quality of the approach. According to Fetterman (1994a), "Empowerment evaluation is the use of evaluation concepts and techniques to foster self-determination. The focus is on helping people help themselves. This evaluation approach focuses on improvement, is collaborative, and requires both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. . . . It is a multifaceted approach with many forms, including training, facilitation, advocacy, illumination, and liberation" (p. …


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